Rhem 3 Review

As its name implies, Rhem 3 is the third offering in the Rhem series. And on the surface, it should -- in every respect -- evoke the same response in me that the first two games did. The scenario is the same -- in fact, Rhem 3 literally begins at the same spot that Rhem 2 left off. The environment is similar, although much more of Rhem 3 takes place above ground than did Rhem 2, which was predominantly played in an underground environment. The theme is the same -- the two .brothers who created Rhem are asking for further help to locate a mysterious (and ancient, naturally) artifact. And the style of play is identical -- a minimalist story line, extremely non-linear game play, filled from beginning to end with countless mind-boggling puzzles, intricately woven into the game -- puzzles of such excruciatingly analytic detail that they will confound the most dedicated of puzzles solvers.

Yet my response to Rhem 3 was very different than to the first two games. Readers of my Rhem 2 review know that I didn't feel that either of the first two games was even remotely solvable without a complete walkthrough; the puzzles were not only difficult, but often extremely non-intuitive. Rhem 3, on the other hand, is eminently solvable. Without a doubt, it will still challenge the most die-hard puzzlers, but there are enough clues so that, with enough grit and determination, the challenges can be met and overcome. The puzzles, for the most part, are intuitive enough, while still being exceedingly unique and imaginative.

And what a different reaction I had to the game as a result! Even though it has been years since I played the first two games, I can still recall the frustration and disappointment that I felt throughout both of those previous games. Their puzzles were too difficult, often completely non-intuitive, and the overall design of the games seemed more intent on preventing the player from finishing, than anything else.

Yet time after time in Rhem 3, I not only experienced the thrill of solving a very difficult puzzle, but then I would discover the "reward" of doing so: perhaps opening up a whole new area of the game, or providing me information that I needed to solve another puzzle, or just giving me the time to relax and enjoy the satisfaction of the progress that I was making.

For the sake of the developer, Knut Müller, I wish that I could put my finger specifically on what accounted for this difference. I'd love to be able to say "Here's what was better in Rhem 3; please give us more of that." I can only hope that the remainder of this review will help identify some of those things. But in general, I can only say that overall, Rhem 3 was by far the most enjoyable and entertaining game in the series for me so far.

Taking a look at the actual components of the game, it is easy to see that it was developed in the same style, and with the same tools, as the previous two games. A player can move from one game to the other without encountering a "blip." The interface is identical. The artwork is 100% consistent with the previous games; each scene is incredibly well-drawn, and even more remarkably so when one considers that this is entirely a one-man project. While there is no in-scene panning, movement between scenes is done through transitions, in much the same way as the earlier Rhem games (and so many others, going back to the classic Myst).

As previously, the "footprint" of the game is enormous. And there are hidden rooms and secret passages galore. But it is not all exposed at the beginning of the game; access to many portions of the environment requires solving puzzles along the way. Yet once the game is fully "opened," the landscape rivals that of the most complex adventure games. Interestingly, this also introduced a level of difficulty that I would not have anticipated. Over the years, I have played hundreds of adventure games, and even the larger ones -- such as Riven or Schizm or Mysterious Journey II -- all seemed easy to learn, easy to navigate, simple to recall. But for some reason, I had a terrible time with Rhem 3, just remembering how to get from Point A to Point B.

Speaking of navigation, an on-going characteristic of the Rhem games is still prevalent in Rhem 3 -- and that is the incredibly convoluted manner in which one must travel between locations. Frequently, it involves a series of back-and-forth operations just to navigate a simple, short distance. This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the first time through such a scenario, it is fun, challenging, and enjoyable to work out the puzzles involved, and determine how to get to a particular destination. However, once a particular path has been navigated, it would be nice if that "puzzle" was recognized as having been completed, and did not require re-solving every time that path needed to be navigated. Some of the most common paths through the game required extremely intricate and extensive puzzle "re-solving" each time. It would have been nice, for example, if doors remained unlocked once the corresponding puzzle had been solved -- but such is not the case with Rhem 3.

This also brings up the point that there is no "map" in Rhem 3. A wonderful addition would have been an evolving map, that would continuously "grow" as a player encountered new areas. Even better would be an interactive map, that allowed clicking on locations already visited to access them immediately, without the tedium of having to retrace lengthy paths -- and re-solve puzzles along the way. But that doesn't exist -- and, I'm sure, is a contributing factor to the lengthy game play provided by Rhem 3, easily in the vicinity of 40 hours or more for most gamers.

The only weak point in the game, IMHO, is the story (such as it is). At the very beginning, you are contacted once again by Kales, who tells of his discovery of a mysterious black gem purported to be in Rhem, and he asks for your help in finding it. There's really not much more information than that -- and even the interface with Kales (brief videos throughout the game) is fairly poorly acted. (He always seems to be on a Valium "low" -- ready to fall asleep at any moment.) Even more confusing is the fact that, as you have further encounters with Kales throughout the game, he appears to know exactly what has to be done next to find this artifact, and provides some clues along the way. So it is unclear why he needs our help.

The accompanying soundtrack is excellent. It is not overpowering, but provides just the right level of "atmosphere" to enhance the enjoyment of the game. In fact, very little that went into making up the entire game -- the artwork, the soundtrack, the user interface, the design of the Rhem 3 landscape, the puzzles themselves -- is less than top-notch. And this is made all the more astounding by virtue of the fact that it is all the work of a single individual.

Another big "plus," to me, is the low hardware requirements of the game. When I played Rhem 3, I had just come off of playing three other high-tech, high-requirement, "bleeding edge" adventure games. And in each case, I encountered numerous problems, limitations, technical barriers, and other hurdles to either the installation or the successful playing of the game. Rhem 3 is still provided on a single CD, and installs quite simply; yet it provides more artwork, more puzzles, and more "game" than any other single-CD game I've played. But an even bigger factor is that I had no issues with the ability (or lack thereof) to run the game on my (slightly) less-than-bleeding-edge system.

Just to do a proper "level set," Rhem 3 is by no means an easy game; it's not even a "moderately difficult" game. As with its predecessors, it is going to challenge the most puzzle-hardened gamers. I found that playing with another person was a huge help, as multiple viewpoints often provide perspectives on a puzzle that don't exist when playing alone. (Hint: if you're going to do that, try to combine at least one highly analytic person, and one highly intuitive person. You'll need both types to make your way through Rhem 3.) And, frankly, it is very likely that many players will not be able to complete the game without some kind of walkthrough or hint file. It's just that tough. But for veteran adventure puzzlers -- and that includes all fans of the Rhem series -- Rhem 3 should more than meet all expectations, and provide an enjoyable, challenging, fun, and rewarding experience.

-- Frank D. Nicodem, Jr.